*Originally posted in January 2018 as a guest contributor for Why I Stopped
Why I stopped letting fear suffocate me:
I have always had a fanciful imagination. I have also always allowed fear to dwell too long in my heart and mind. Fortunately, the scenarios I dreamt up were just amalgamations of the thrilling bits of other people’s stories on paper and screen. There were no real threats to my safety or security in my nominally sheltered life. However, once my brain got agitated, I easily worked myself into a breathless panic.
My junior year of high school I was jumped in the cafeteria. All of a sudden, my imagined fears were a reality. In 20 seconds, the attack by some disillusioned girls who didn’t have great eyesight caused worry, anxiety, distress, and fear to set up permanent residence in my heart. School administrators quickly discovered that I wasn’t the girl the delinquents had intended on surrounding, stealing from, and assaulting. But regardless of my mistaken identity, I was the one left crying, hurt, and scared out of my mind. As a top academic student, contributing member of nearly every school club, and seasoned athlete, no one doubted my innocence in the matter for a minute. The whole bizarre incident should have been easy to shake off as a one-in-a-million-chance occurrence. But fear doesn’t like to relinquish control.
Physically, I made a quick recovery. Getting yanked back by my ponytail combined with the stress of the trauma did result in some temporary hair loss, but today I don’t bear any scars. Most of the contents of my stolen purse were recovered (although the purse itself was destroyed – a tragedy in and of itself). I returned to classes at school by the end of the week, but it took a long time for me to regain any sense of security.
Rationally, I could always reason myself out of fear. Emotionally, I was stunted. Large crowds, sitting in the middle of a room with my back exposed, near-empty hallways, being alone at my job in the mall all terrified me. As soon as I perceived a threat, my stomach would leap up to my throat, the hairs on my arms would raise, and I would feel my whole body stiffen as paralytic fear surrounded me.
After the incident in high school, I did attend a few therapy sessions. The worst part of processing the event was the realization that my fight-flight responses did not kick in. When my head was pummeled, I was frozen to my chair. I could only imagine that if placed in other tense situations, my body would react similarly. The idea that my inability to fight or flee would likely mean sudden death the next time was so scary. Months passed before I could eat lunch in the school cafeteria. Years came and went before I could sit in the middle of a restaurant without checking over my shoulder between bites. The unknown was frightening. The ideas of pain and death were unreasonably debilitating.
Thankfully, God did some healing work on my heart and mind. College was the incubating stage of growth that I needed. I started my freshman year at a private, Christian school located in my hometown. Despite my disappointment at not moving away for university, I was thankful to live in a safe, quiet community and fortunately did have many grand adventures. I visited 14 countries through study abroad and mission trip opportunities. As I traveled the world and opened my heart and mind up to the incredible potential of God’s grace, I slowly learned to pray and breathe away the tight grip of fear that strangled my heart and weighed down my mind. I stopped expecting the worst-case scenarios and started seeing hope, beauty, joy, and the general good in humanity through interactions with strangers across the globe.
Through a series of seemingly random coincidences (I’m actually positive they were more accurately Divine providences), I applied for a master’s program the day after I walked across the stage of my undergraduate commencement ceremony. After spending my entire senior year swearing off grad school and apprehensively searching for jobs (what is an international business/political science-studying 22-year old actually qualified for?), I took the GMAT and sent my application in to the American University of Paris, received an acceptance call within 10 days, and was awarded scholarships the following week, despite missing every possible admittance deadline. It was extremely clear that I was supposed to go to Paris and I felt perfect peace about taking the leap of faith across the Atlantic.
I spent a blissful summer enjoying the company of friends and family. However, as the days before my departure dwindled, the fear of the unknown began to creep back in. In college, I watched Taken too many times and was far too aware that my dad wasn’t Liam Neeson. My ridiculous imagination started working overtime hours on all the terrible ways I could die in Paris. In spite of the fear, I wisely packed (and cried) and repacked (and cried a bit more) until I was out of time for stalling. My suitcases were stuffed to the brim and all good-byes had been said. Fearful or not, it was too late to turn back.
My parents and sister dropped me off at the airport on a balmy summer evening. I could barely hold a conversation and there was no way I could successfully swallow food. The entire day, I had been numbed by the fear of going forth and the idea that I might encounter stressful situations along the way. Rationally, I had peace, excitement, and happy anticipation to experience what I knew would be an amazing academic pursuit and cultural immersion. Emotionally, the fear was suffocating me. I entered the security gate at the airport completely and pathetically overwhelmed.
But then, when I was completely alone, something changed. As a seasoned traveler, my rationality kicked back in. As a passionate Christian, my belief in the steadfastness of God conquered the fear. I took a breath and took off my shoes to go through the x-ray scanner. I relaxed my shoulders and released the grip on my passport and ticket. I concentrated on my real needs of finding the departure gate and a coffee instead of on all the imaginary threats to my safety. When I sat down on the plane, I jotted down a simple mantra that I repeatedly breathed in and out over the year to come: “Light heart, heavy faith”.
The phrase wasn’t magical, but it forced me to slow my thoughts down and breathe when life got tense. Creating an oxygenated moment of quiet helped me to better assess when I actually needed to be on guard. While I lived overseas, there were definitely times of necessary apprehension and realistic fear. One evening in Paris, some men looking for quick cash followed me into my apartment building. Light heart, heavy faith. On study trips to Morocco and Kazakhstan, I remember moments that I was in the company of some clearly unsavory people. Light heart, heavy faith. Even when loneliness, depression, shame, and guilt crept in… Light heart, heavy faith.
Last year while doing street evangelism on a mission’s trip in Chicago, I was nearly jumped. The scare of the altercation and the flood of memories from the cafeteria rattled me, but ultimately I had a light heart & heavy faith that the peace that surpasses all understanding would guard my heart and mind (Philippians 4:7). Fear no longer holds me hostage. I often can’t control the chaos that life throws at me, but my encouragement to others who are overwhelmed by fear is to take a deep breath. Don’t put stock in the “what ifs”. Simply inhale a light heart and exhale a heavy faith.